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Keeping Schedule in Iraq

“No war has ever been won on a timetable—and neither will this one.” It was during the 2004 presidential campaign that the President laid American choices out most starkly—stay in Iraq indefinitely, or give the terrorists an advantage. For example, on Sept. 6, 2004, the day after John Kerry came out with his clunky “W. stands for wrong” slogan, George W. Bush replied,

it would be unwise to set a deadline for beginning or finishing a pullout of troops in Iraq. Terrorist groups, he argues, would use the date to their strategic advantage.

It has long been a claim by this administration that schedules are a bad idea. The “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” asserts three primary reasons for never scheduling what should happen when. First, “the timing of success depends upon meeting certain conditions, not arbitrary timetables,” which makes sense enough, in that it’s never a good idea to go to press before the type is set. It bypasses, however, the argument that deadlines are set for good reason: they help all parties involved get stuff done within a reasonable amount of time. The second reason, that “arbitrary deadlines or timetables for withdrawal of Coalition forces… would be irresponsible and deadly, as they would suggest to the terrorists, Saddamists, and rejectionists that they can simply wait to win,” is logically circular and based on a remarkably obtuse psychology. If we allow time to be a factor of our planning, the reasoning goes, enemies would believe that they can win; because we don’t want enemies to believe they can win, we cannot allow time to factor in our planning. Poke the reason from any angle, and it scream in pain:

  1. Psychology (Neocon Assertion of Self): A superhyperpower must demostrate power in war policy rather than base it on liberal suggestions of what its enemies might think.
  2. Psychology (Liberal Questions): How does America know what enemies think—did it conduct focus groups and surveys? Moreover, if the enemies already believe they can outwait America and win, doesn’t that negate the idea that setting a timetable creates the belief?
  3. Reality (Occupation, not War): The “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” appeals over and over again to conditions in Iraq, but in this case it asserts that war, not occupation is the condition that matters, when in fact, from 2003 on, occupation needed to be central to strategy. The longer an occupation seems indefinite, the sooner the occupier begins to seem an oppressor.
  4. Reality (Philosophy, Time, and Politics): Death and time cannot be unchained. The more soldiers die before their times, the more the soldiers feel they have no mission, the louder and longer the call, “How much longer?”

The third reason the strategy gives for giving no schedule is “No war has ever been won on a timetable—and neither will this one.” Not only does it belie, again, the fact that occupation, not war, should have been the primary condition on which the policy was based, but also it goes conveniently glassy-eyed in the face of a history of war and war strategy. I’m no war historian—I find it disheartening and sad—but I know, for example, that Germany was pinschered in WW2 on three different fronts, to the west, the south, and the east, and all of the allies were working in concert to make it happen.

President Bush took that stretegy to the Naval Academy, where on November 30, 2005, he gave one of his frequent “important” speeches. The speech was little more than the flypaper theory with a few goals that certainly sounded good when he said them (to better the Iraqi security forces, to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure), but never became actually existing, comprehensive policies that yielded results. (On that note, did no one ever consider that the flypaper theory might be at odds with political and economic aims, or did they consider it then pursue the theory as policy anyway, in a cynical assertion that constant war is better than increasing stability?) However, to suggest a schedule of any sort (for there were critics calling for schedules of all kinds) was to be creating an “artificial timetable” for total withdrawal:

Some are calling for a deadline for withdrawal. Many advocating an artificial timetable for withdrawing our troops are sincere—but I believe they’re sincerely wrong. Pulling our troops out before they’ve achieved their purpose is not a plan for victory….

Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a message across the world that America is a weak and an unreliable ally. Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies—that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends. And setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorists’ tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder—and invite new attacks on America. “Some in Washington say put a time table out there. I—I just think that’s a terrible mistake.”

Then, even as late as last month, in an interview with Katie Couric the President said, “some in Washington say put a time table out there. I—I just think that’s a terrible mistake.”

I’ve heard the President appeal many times to his consistency (Emerson notwithstanding). “You know where I stand,” he’s said. In this campaign season he’s continued the call for consistency—stay the course, he’s said; don’t “cut and run” with (to?) the Democrats—and on that note he’s asserted how important it is that American strategy in Iraq remain schedule free. In the Rose Garden on October 11:

[Democrats] may not use cut and run, but they say date certain is when to get out, before the job is done. That is cut and run. Nobody has accused me of having a real sophisticated vocabulary, I understand that. And maybe their—their words are more sophisticated than mine. But when you pull out before the job is done, that’s cut and run as far as I’m concerned.

How amazing it is, then, that today it was announced that his administration is preparing a timetable for Iraq. Kevin Drum wonders what it might mean, and like him, I find it difficult to tell. When it’s released, they’ll describe it as a timetable of everything but withdrawal—a timetable for Iraq, not for the US; a timetable for change, rather than withdrawal—all as a means to save face by asserting that they are adjusting to conditions rather than changing courses in mid-dream. Hedging is as hedging does, however, and it must be held to some standard of truth. We might as well use the standard set forth by the President himself. For three years has he has refused to make any kind of deadline by virtue that deadlines would make America’s enemies believe they can win; why, then, does he believe that the path forward is to assert that the US is preparing to lose?

 

Comments

I just want to know when we’re going to invade Iran.

Sometime after November 7, probably.

How swiftly things change. Yesterday Tony Snow explained that the WH has abandoned the phrase stay the course.

*Q& Is there a change in the administration “stay the course” policy? Bartlett this morning said that wasn’t ever the policy.

MR. SNOW: No, the policy—because the idea of “stay the course” is you’ve done one thing, you kick back and wait for it. And this has always been a dynamic policy that is aimed at moving forward at all times on a number of fronts. And that would include the international diplomatic front. After all, the Iraq compact is something we worked out with the Iraqis before visiting the Prime Minister in Baghdad earlier this year.

So what you have is not “stay the course,” but, in fact, a study in constant motion by the administration and by the Iraqi government, and, frankly, also by the enemy, because there are constant shifts, and you constantly have to adjust to what the other side is doing.

I think you also see much more aggressive efforts on the part of the Iraqi government because the Prime Minister understands the importance—the vital importance of reconciliation. The third reconciliation conference will be taking place next—is it next week, week after next—on the 4th. He is working on the reconciliation front. There has been considerable, and continues to be, action on the economic front. And obviously, we’re continuing to cooperate in security. That is not a “stay the course” policy.

(This was previewed, by the way, by GWB’s Stephanopolous interview, when he said, “I’ve never been ‘stay the course,’ George.” It was also announced by Dan Bartlett on CNN.)

When I first heard this on the radio, I thought 1) that it was preparation for the timetable, and they were doing this now because they’ve the very notion of a timetable has been married to “stay the course” and to something the admin thinks is bad; and 2) that there’s some desperate folks in the GOP if the WH has to change its language two weeks before an election. It may be more the latter than the former.

That interview with Bartlett is slimy, but check it out:

Several facets of the Iraq war require benchmarks, including improving the capabilities of Iraqi police and security forces, and resolving the country’s oil and reconciliation issues, Bartlett said.

In an interview with ABC News, Bartlett expanded on how to prod the Iraqi government into meeting the benchmarks and milestones, saying the U.S. is looking to “incentivize them to take control and give command-and-control operations exclusively to the Iraqi security forces.”

“We do have a lot of reconstruction funds, for example,” Bartlett said. “And if you have a solid political structure in place in a secure climate, then that way you can have money go into there.”

That middle paragraph: it’s already being cast an Iraqi schedule, not an American one. In other words, it’s an ultimatum, “Do what we want, or else.”

Yglesias says it all means diddly squat, not that that wasn’t obvious, of course…

And the Columbia Journalism Review weighs in on media coverage of the change:

The reason the phrase has been dropped, in short, is that it just doesn’t poll well. Ask Steve Hinkson, political director at Luntz Research Cos., a GOP public opinion firm, quoted in the Post piece. He said the phrase suggests “burying your head in the sand,” that it was no longer useful for signaling determination. “The problem is that as the number of people who agree with remaining resolute dwindles, that sort of language doesn’t strike a chord as much as it once did.”

So a president who has famously said that he doesn’t govern by polls, seem to at least be willing to alter his words because of them.

We question not so much whether the story of the phrase-change is worth running. It surely is. But we wonder what kind of context a newspaper can give this type of news to make it clear that what we are dealing with here is simply an administration spinning the Iraq mess in a different way. And not, as they might want us to believe, in a different direction.

On schedules, Rumsfeld was obtuse yesterday.:

During an often-combative Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld said that while benchmarks for security, political and economic progress are valuable, “it’s difficult. We’re looking out into the future. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty.”

He forgot to add the caveat, “except for lasers, boys. Except for lasers.”